Thursday, January 06, 2005

I Don't Beg People To Follow Jesus / The Sin of Commodifying People

I don't beg people to follow Jesus. Some might find that to be a truly horrific statement. They may wonder what I'm doing in ministry. Before you write me off completely, let me explain. The "pleading with people to come to faith" methodology stems from a few assumtions: 1) It's all about Heaven and Hell (or at least that's the most important thing) 2) "Being a Christian" comprises of holding the right beliefs in your head (or mentally agreeing with the right ideas) 3) Morality is all Jesus is really looking for.
I buy into none of these assumptions. While Heaven and Hell are realities (though most popular understandings of them are misleading at best) they most certainly are not the point. On top of that, simply holding the right beliefs in ones head is worthless, and morality as an end unto itself is an anemic goal unworthy of the Blood of Jesus. The point is Jesus. It's living in the Way of Jesus. It's living out the mission of Jesus. It's impacting and interacting with the world the way Jesus would if he were us. I try to reveal the mission. I try to point to the Way. I try to paint the beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God...of how the world would be if we let God use us to bring his dream into reality. If they aren't interested, I'm not going to beg them. Jesus didn't. When groups of His followers left because His Way was to hard or different from what they wanted, He looked at his other disciples and said "Are you going to leave too? There's the door."

On a slightly related and slightly unrelated note, I've been thinking about church growth and numeric (attendance) goals recently. To be totally honest (que hostile responses) I think such goals may be sinful. I base that on the account of David's sin of taking a census of Isreal and things Jesus said about about the man who built bigger barns. On top of that I have a real problem when we commodify people and reduce them to numbers. It seems like we are only interested in getting more butts in our pews for the glory/continuing existence of each individual congregation. It seems to me that if we instead focused on making/being disciples (apprentices) of the Way of Jesus and focus on transforming our churches into communities of faith that motivate by inclusion (rather than exclusion), we would see true growth stemming not from programs, but as a natural product of who we are. It seems to me that if we care more about who we are (supposed to be) and less about numbers, God will be more likely to bless us with the numbers. On the other hand, if we seek numbers as an end unto themselves for the glory/continued existence of our individual congregations, God may well refuse to bless such goals. Jesus said something about "if you want to save your life you will lose it, but if you pour out your life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, you will find it"(paraphrase mine). I wonder if that applies to churches too.


Lisa said...


I think you may be the first preacher I've come across who wasn't gung ho on attendance goals (or at least who was vocal about it). But I think you have some very valid points.

I don't think that setting attendance goals is wrong--having a concrete, measurable goal can be helpful. In some cases, if goals are not met, or if attendance starts dropping off, you may need to do a "check-up" on your church and try to find out why--some changes may need to be made. Setting goals in and of themselves is not sinful. We do have to question motives in goal-setting, though. Are we looking to raise our attendance so that we can bring in more money for a new church building, or so that we can be the "it" church in town? OR are we truly seeking to save souls? I don't think God's concerned with how many people are listed on our church directories; He's concerned with more people coming to know Him.

As far as programs go, I've long been of the opinion that if a program is meant to happen, God will make it happen. Programs do not equal relationship with God--they can definitely enhance it, but you can have a church with 100 different programs and no heart for God. While certain programs may attract different people to different churches--youth programs or singles programs, for instance--I think what truly keeps people coming back and brings them to accept Christ is coming to know His love for them.

Matt Elliott said...

I see you're reading "The Story We Find Ourselves In" -- I'm about halfway through it right now. Let's get on the email, dude. I'd love to know what you're thinking right now!

Steve F. said...

Amen and amen, Adam.

I'm not the biblical scholar that I could be - but my reading of the Gospels don't even show Jesus begging people to follow Jesus. So I can definitely get on-board with the idea that I shouldn't be doing it.

And I'm grateful for you naming those three assumptions - I've been fighting them myself for nearly 30 years, and in those 3 decades I've only found about a half-dozen churches willing to openly question their supposedly "correct" answers to them.

To your three assumptions, I'd add a fourth: the assumption that if you're in church, you're "saved" or you're somehow "in" with God. To me, this is very much like assuming that if I spent every Sunday morning for 10 years in a basketball arena, I'd be Michael Jordan. I could be like him...but I'd have to be doing things a lot differently than I do now...

Time and time again I've heard, "You've gotta be saved, boy." The question is, saved from what, and to what? It continues to amaze me that churches are willing to save my soul from the pain of an after-life of hell - but very few are willing to address how to escort me (or anyone else) out of (or through) the hell that so often makes up daily living. It comes back to Matthew 25 for me, time and time again...doing to (and for) the least of these. And that includes those inside the church who come against hard times - spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

Having the right dogma, holding one's hands just so over the communion elements, making sure that I'm right to the letter of the text when dealing with sin of any kind (the whole "I have kept all these [commandments] from my youth" idea of Christian living) me, they all become works-righteousness. And while James did write that "faith without works is dead," I really wish he had stated the obvious (and true) converse: that works without faith is living death; it's un-life.

At almost every AA meeting I've ever attended, at some point someone quotes from chapter 5 of the AA text that says, "If you want what we have, and are willing to go to any lengths to get it, you are ready to take certain steps." The converse is true here, also: if you don't want what we have, have it your way. I wish I could find a church that would say, "Welcome. If you find what we have worthwhile, join us. If not, we're grateful to have you join us this morning, anyway." It would be interesting to see the difference between that and "you've gotta 'have it our way' or you'll burn!" approach I hear so often.

It's funny about numerical growth, too - a 12-step principle that originated in Christianity (via the turn-of-the-century Oxford Groups) is that when we straighten out spiritually, we also get better physically, emotionally, financially, and socially. I think the same is true for the church - when we start living and serving as Jesus would have us live and serve, and focusing on Jesus instead of the church, amazing things can happen. One of the best examples of this being the testimony of Jim Cymbala (the Brooklyn Tabernacle) described in Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. He told his congregation that the strength and success of their ministry would be measured not by what happened on Sunday morning, but by what happened and who attended the Tuesday prayer meetings. An interesting concept...

I have to be reminded that Acts 2 says that "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (2:42, 2:47b). It specifically does not say that if your numbers are growing, then you must be Goliaths of spiritual discipline. (Heck, the Chicago Bears still average nearly 60,000-plus a game, and there's nothing to inspire faith there, to be sure...)

OK - forgive the comment-turned-epistle. I think you're onto some good stuff - and you've given me much to think of, as well. Thanks!

Rick said...

good thoughts, good conversation on this stuff - that's what's missing most of the time from "church growth" stuff. numbers are good to give a measure of whether you're doing certain things well, but they're not the end-all of the system. i'd rather have more new people than old people, more new leaders than same old leaders, more visitors than missing members, etc. numbers can be whatever you want them to be, and still not reflect that you just want to commune with and grow the kingdom.

good stuff!

David U said...

Adam, GREAT insights! You got it going on, brother! I am glad that I found our blog....I will be an avid reader from now on.

It always blew my mind when I heard someone described as a "faithful" Christian on the SOLE basis that he attended church every time the doors were open. It didn't really matter what he was doing the rest of the week evidently!

God bless you in your ministry,

Keith said...

Interesting comments. We are entering a building project at our congregation(est.$2mil.+) and I cringe everytime the elders talk about it from the pulpit. I used to be for more facilities by my thinking has changed a lot in the last 10 years. I just don't think we need a place bigger, just so we can see all 700 of us at the same time. In church business, I think smaller is better, more intimate, more personal. We have to be careful we don't fall into the trap of thinking we can't grow unless we build a facility to grow into. Growth can be defined in many ways and I am uncomfortable with any attention given to growth rates based on numbers. God says he will give the increase if we sow the seed. We need to try that. Good luck in your ministry with youth. No better calling in my opinion.

Fajita said...

Growing bigger by growing smaller is a good perspective. It is very hard in light of tsunami damage and loss to justify millions on bricks.

biblemike said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
biblemike said...

How quickly we miss the point of why we are called to what we are called. It isn’t about what I know. It is about who I know and how well I know Him. It isn’t about me. It’s about Him. It is not about what I believe (what a shallow and transitory expression), but rather who I believe and obey. That’s right – OBEY. The word most modernists want to through out of Christendom and the word that is the basis of our relationship with God. God’s statements, declarations and plans are not open to discussion. In our modern societies we change our leaders, our masters, our governing agents the way we change our coats based more on style and popularity than depth or commitment. It is how we live, not what we say that fulfills the great command. A disciple learns by watching his teacher, not just listening to him. As a preacher I once knew told me, “We are the only Bible that most people will ever read.” People know how I feel about my wife by the way I treat her and the way I speak about her in my most uninhibited moments and that is how they can learn about what a relationship with Jesus is all about.

When I first met my wife she was living with her grandfather. “Pappy” was one of the finest men I have ever known, but he was also one of the most intransigent. The first day he met me he let me know in absolute terms that I was not good enough for his granddaughter and I had best not speak about Jesus or church to him ever. Rhonda and I eventually married with his approval, but Jesus and church were still topics verboten. I didn’t force religious or philosophical concepts into our conversations, but I did not change the way I lived either. When Pappy became too ill to care for himself, we all moved in together. Pappy’s cancer was very painful and he used to wake me in the middle of the night to sit up and talk with him to help distract him from the pain. Even then I kept my word and never spoke of Jesus, but I prayed for him daily and loved him with all my heart.

One night Pappy said to me, “You know I have been watching you. I’ve been watching the way you treat Rhonda and the way you treat me. When you’re wrong you admit it and ask for forgiveness. You try to do the right thing most of the time. And you seem to have a great deal of peace about everything. How did you get that way? Can I be that comfortable too?” That night we talked about how I came to know Jesus and how it affected the way I relate to people and the world around me. We talked about eternal hope and, most importantly, eternal relationship. Pappy prayed with me that night and was baptized two weeks later. Shortly after that he went home where he waits just inside the eastern gate for the rest of us.

We have a small church, but we are outgrowing our current building and building a new structure to use along with it. This new structure is not to house members recruited from other churches. It is intended to house members arriving as a result of our outreach ministries into the communities of non-Christians who surround us. We help our friends and neighbors and when they ask why we tell them. That is the kind of evangelism and growth we are called to do. As we truly become more and more like Christ, poor imitations to be sure, others will want to know what makes us so and we can share that without confrontation or misplaced zeal. The Holy Spirit draws. The Holy Spirit convicts. The Holy Spirit even provides the faith needed to believe. If we are obedient in what we do and let the Holy Spirit do what He does, the body of Christ will grow.

Yours in Christ,


Brandon Scott Thomas said...

YES!!! Awesome post!

John Owens said...

Adam, this is good stuff. I love the Northpoint Community Church approach. They don't measure success by numbers, but by stories. I have so much more to say, but I won't.